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Helicopter in a Suitcase
March 27, 2013   
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Engineers at the Air Force Institute of Technology (ITWL) in Warsaw have built an unmanned, light observation helicopter that fits into a small suitcase and is instantly ready to fly. The helicopter, called the Koliber (Humming Bird), can take off and land vertically and hover in the air.

Even though unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have been built at the Air Force Institute of Technology for years, the Koliber, with its four horizontally mounted rotors, was a special challenge for the designers.

The Koliber has been built as part of a project called “The Design, Construction and Testing of a Light Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System for Vertical Takeoff and Landing” financed by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR). The requirements were for the drone to be operated by one person, weigh under 5 kilograms and be capable of vertical takeoff and landing (TVOL). The helicopter is also expected to be able to transmit images in real time over a distance of around 3 kilometers. The project has been coordinated by Ryszard Sabak, D.Sc., at the institute’s Airplane and Helicopter Division.

According to Michał W±siewicz, press officer for the Air Force Institute of Technology, vertical takeoff and landing capabilities are the key features that make the Koliber stand out from other drones modeled on standard airplanes. The device needs no launching pad or runway to take off and can be used in virtually every location, W±siewicz says.

A major advantage of this design is that after folding, the Koliber can fit into a box the size of a suitcase and be easily carried by one person. The drone is ready to fly within a minute after the box is popped open.

Technologically speaking, helicopters are far more complicated than airplanes because of the distinctive design where lift force is produced by one or more horizontally mounted propellers. Unlike airplanes, helicopters are highly unstable and once they lose balance, they are unable to automatically regain it. This presents a number of challenges to engineers who design steering and mid-air navigation systems.

The Koliber is based on a light, vertical takeoff and landing platform used for reconnaissance purposes. It can hover in the air and fly at very low speeds in all directions, which presents new opportunities to future users. For example, it could be used to watch structures on the ground over long periods of time while being shielded by natural objects as trees and buildings. The remotely controlled helicopter can land and take off without drawing much attention and perform pre-programmed maneuvers. After a mission is completed, the Koliber does not need to be recalled until several hours later, so that it can fly back at night, for example. The miniature helicopter is expected to prove particularly useful in urban areas with tall buildings and in hard-to-access mountainous regions.

According to Sabak, the project manager, a vital part of the project has been to design a mobile ground station to pre-program the helicopter’s route and flight parameters. The station must also ensure connectivity with the helicopter and automatically control its tasks during both day and night. The project team have used an autopilot system previously developed at the Air Force Institute of Technology and enabling unmanned flights on pre-programmed routes.

While designing and building the Koliber, the engineers at the Airplane and Helicopter Division focused on ensuring safe flights. To this end, they needed to develop many algorithms for automated control in a variety of crisis situations. The Koliber has been equipped with an emergency parachute system that is autonomously deployed when flight conditions disrupt the tasks the helicopter has been programmed to perform. Alternatively, the system can be activated by the ground station operator.

After many years of work, the engineers at the Air Force Institute of Technology can boast an array of unmanned aerial vehicles of different sizes and purposes. Globally, devices of this kind are still mainly used by the military, but the evolving technology means other organizations are also becoming interested, including the police, forest services, geologists and cartographers.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in a wide range of operations, including reconnaissance, surveillance, search and rescue missions, vehicle tracking, contamination analysis and aerial photography. They can be built in different sizes, from devices that fit into the palm of your hand to drones with a wingspan of up to 30 meters. They are excellent surveillance tools, used most frequently by the military over enemy territory. Fitted with optoelectronic devices, they enable continuous observation of land and moving troops. They can travel autonomously along planned routes or be remotely controlled from thousands of miles away.

Studies on improving unmanned aerial vehicles have been conducted at many research centers worldwide. Over 100 different drones have been built to date, with the most sophisticated designs originating from the United States and Israel.

The Air Force Institute of Technology is a research center supervised by the Polish Ministry of Defense. The institute conducts research in applied aviation technology. It aims to pursue innovation in the following fields:

- design and integration of aviation systems;
- logistics systems;
- failure-free and safe operation;
- unmanned aerial vehicles;
- training and e-learning;
- aircraft weapons;
- airport and road infrastructure;
- fuel substitutes, fluids and lubricants;
- biocomponents for use in the aerospace sector.

Koliber helicopter facts:
Weight: 3.5 kilograms
Flight duration: 20 minutes
Range: 3 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 200 meters
Flight speed: 0-60 kph

Remote control or fully autonomous operation with real-time remote flight parameter adjustment when necessary.
The Air Force Institute of Technology’s previous designs included experimental drones of the “flying wing” type (Falcon, Wampir, Chrab±szcz, Komar, Szerszeń) and airplanes with traditional fuselages (MP-45, LBSO, Hob-bit). Some of these have long been used by the Polish air force.
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